“Differences of religion do not separate us, but rather enrich us in many areas of life.”

Conference participants gathered at the Cumberland Lodge. Photo: courtesy of Cumberland Lodge

From 14-16 December in the UK, the Conference of European Churches (CEC) and Cumberland Lodge held a conference titled “Towards Peaceful co-existence in the Middle East: challenges and opportunities.” Co-hosted by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, the gathering drew participants from a broad range of Middle Eastern and European churches.

A central issue was how states treat people of different religious affiliation.

CEC president Rev. Christian Krieger stated: “We are aware that in Europe, when we talk about justice for minorities, we also look for everyone to have the status of equal citizens. This point, as our partners in the Middle East have stressed, requires more attention and clarification.”

The conference also addressed other concrete challenges and opportunities in countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.

Participants stressed that education is one of the key elements in overcoming prejudices.

In his greetings, Patriarch John X of Antioch said, “By the grace of God, we, as Christians, have been living in the East for two thousand years, and we have coexisted with our Muslim brothers and sisters for many centuries. Differences of religion do not separate us, but rather enrich us in many areas of life.”

Participants release communique

Participants released a communique regarding the avenues they explored towards peaceful coexistence in the Middle East.

“From the early 20th century with its great distortions, many people in the Middle East never had the time and opportunity for achieving peace and reconciliation, both of which need determination, attention and resources,” reads the communique. “Peaceful coexistence in the 21st century must be based on a separation of powers, citizenship, equality before the law, non-discrimination, social justice, full participation, and mutual respect.”

The communique also emphasized that religious communities and their leaders have a responsibility for putting human dignity at the centre.

“Religious communities can draw upon valuable experiences in education, specifically peace education,” reads the communique. “Mixed denominational schools play an important part in bringing up young people in a spirit of friendship, involving mothers and fathers in reaching a new understanding of education, and by doing so setting an example for the education system as a whole.”

Participants recommended that states develop a deeper understanding of human dignity. “Religious communities should distinguish between the religious significance of their holy lands or places and territorial power over them,” the communique adds. “Sharing cultural sites must not be seen as a matter of competition, but of commonality.”

Religious communities should also deepen their theological understanding of coexistence, the communique recommends. “Religious communities should work towards a holistic vision of justice for all, overcoming indifference, ignorance and fear,” reads the text. “Religious communities should create spaces for encounters, especially for the younger generations, so that they may grow up in a spirit of friendship, not of prejudice and hatred.”

In addition, religious communities should engage in interreligious dialogue, the communique recommends. “States and societies in Europe and other parts of the world should become more actively engaged in promoting peace and reconciliation in the Middle East, not only on ethical grounds, but also as the conflicts have an impact on many other regions in the world,” reads the communique.

World Council of Churches, oikoumene.org